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A year of opportunity for Maryland Republicans

December 20, 2009|By KAREN ANDERSON

ANNAPOLIS -- Ranked by Gallup as the country's third-most Democratic state, Maryland has been a steep climb for any Republican candidate vying to win statewide office.

Still, political experts and party leaders across the state think a GOP gubernatorial victory is possible in 2010.

"I think Republicans can win in Maryland," said Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College. "But they've got to capitalize on current levels of voter discontent with the state of the economy in Maryland and nationally, and the budget deficit in the state."

To win the governor's race, Republicans must recruit a candidate capable of raising money, develop an organization to turn out the vote and stick to a strong message, according to analysts.

"If they're going to knock off any incumbents, 2010 seems like it will be the year to try," said James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It seems like a shame for Republicans to pass up the opportunity to run a competitive race, but they might, because this is Maryland."

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As of November, Democrats made up nearly 57 percent of Maryland's registered voters, while Republicans were less than 27 percent. For a Republican to win statewide, he must hold his base and win widespread support among conservative Democrats and independents.

Candidate recruitment will be essential for Republicans in 2010. Without that, Gimpel said, "it'll be an opportunity squandered."

Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who lost to current Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2006, is the strongest potential candidate, according to a September poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.

"At the moment, Bob Ehrlich really is the Republican Party in Maryland," said Eberly, who added that "an Ehrlich run would excite Republicans" at a time when they need to be excited.

Others, such as Annapolis businessman Larry Hogan, a former Cabinet secretary in the Ehrlich administration, and Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, are planning to enter the race.

Whoever takes on O'Malley has a tough fundraising challenge ahead.

As of January 2009, when the last campaign finance data was submitted, O'Malley had raised more than $2.6 million in contributions for the 2010 election cycle and spent about $1.7 million.

Ehrlich had raised more than $440,000 in contributions and spent more than $477,000 as of January 2009, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.

In Maryland, "Republicans are probably most of the time going to outspend Democrats in order to defeat them in big races," Gimpel said.

In 2006, Ehrlich outspent O'Malley by almost $3 million and lost.

Still, due to the state's budget shortfall and national trends such as the drop in President Obama's job approval ratings, Republicans are hoping 2010 will be a year of opportunity in which independent voters favor Republican candidates and Democratic voters turn out in low numbers.

Maryland Democrats don't appear nervous about the possibility of a Republican swing in 2010, mostly due to their advantage among registered voters and the challenge Republicans face in coming up with a quality alternative to O'Malley's handling of the state budget.

"That's a standard Republican line, 'I'll get rid of the waste,' but there is no waste," said Milton Minneman, communications director for the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. "It would be very hard for (a Republican challenger) to get anything but the hard-core Republicans voting for him. If all the Republicans and half the independents voted for the Republican, the governor would still win because of the dominance of the Democratic registration in Maryland."

Other Democrats hope to place responsibility for the state's budget shortfall on Ehrlich, O'Malley's Republican predecessor.

"That albatross we're going to hang around the Republicans' necks," said Michael McPherson, chairman of the Howard County Democratic Party. "That's not of our doing."

The decline in Obama's job approval rating shows Democrats might be having difficulty making that argument on a national level.

In recent years, national politics appear to have influenced the outcome of state elections in Maryland and, Eberly said, 2010 is shaping up to be an "anti-incumbent year."

As the incumbent party, Maryland Democrats are attached to the state's $1.1 billion in general fund spending reductions this year and the further budget shortfall predicted for fiscal 2011.

"In Maryland, it's nearly 3-to-1 Democrats in the House and 2-to-1 Democrats in the Senate, and you've got a Democrat submitting the budget. There's no other party that's going to absorb any of the blame," Eberly said.

O'Malley's approval rating is currently at 48 percent, 6 percentage points below Ehrlich's in the months preceding his 2006 electoral loss, according to polling by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.

"That's a danger ground for any incumbent," said Eberly.

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